We Don’t Need No Education: Memory & Learning

In the News, Ampersand Latest


Times have changed in the way we employ our brains to learn and retain information. Antonio Case writes in NewPhilosopher, “As information compounds at an alarming rate, some argue that learning how to properly search for information , across library catalogues and university databases, is more useful than rattling off facts and figures.” From 2010 to 2011 Wang Feng from China had the best memory in the world. He could memorise 2660 random numbers in an hour and in 24 seconds he could commit to memory a deck of 52 playing cards.

In The Decent of Man, Charles Darwin catalogued a number of useless or near useless body parts, superfluous traits of no further relevance to humans. Antonia, “Human memory too may be on the verge of redundancy. We have search engines for historic names and dates, a GPS for navigation, social media accounts to remember friends’ birthdays and family photographs for instant reminiscence.” Students seem more inclined to store just the bare minimum of memories these days. Why overcrowd the mind when it can be free of memory clutter, downloadable at will via a technological gadget.

Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory in heroic writings. She enjoyed high status because memory was seen above all as the well spring of human knowledge. E M Foster wrote, “Memory and intelligence are closely connected for unless we can remember we cannot understand.” Voltaire agreed saying that the thinking part of the human race had believed for a long time that we had no ideas except those that came to us through our senses, and that memory was the only instrument by means of which we could join two ideas and two words together.

Antonia, “Of course, in oral tradition, before we wrote blog posts or shot home videos, what we personally remembered was our sole link to the past. But for many today the fountainhead of knowledge is more likely sourced from the digital data centre down the road.” British mnemonist Dominic O’Brien, the eight time world memory champion believes enhanced memory fuels creativity and self-belief. Antonia, ” Mnemonics involves transferring text, which is difficult to remember, into recallable settings and images. In short mnemonists are expert day dreamers…A good imagination is the key to success.”

Some psychologists believe that we lose around 70% of what we’ve just heard or read unless we put in place some sort of strategy to retain it. Ebbinghaus discovered that a steep forgetting curve can be significantly flattened by mnemonic techniques, as well as spaced repetition…a conclusion also reached by recent developments in neuroscience. Author Peter Brown writes, “People generally are going about learning in the wrong ways. Empirical research into how we learn and remember shows that much of what we take for gospel about how to learn turns out to be largely wasted effort.” Findings show rereading, note learning and cramming are time wasters. Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategy of learners of all stripes. But they’re also among the least productive.


Feats of mental strength by memory champions remind us that we all have a brain sitting there, silently, underutilised, bored and unspent. Antonia, “Interestingly, students who read and reread a text and understand it effortlessly are more likely to flunk an exam. It appears memory spikes when learning is slow and grueling, when key ideas are distilled and entrenched into memory using tools like flash cards and quizzes. Increasing the difficulty of learning a topic, such as interspersing study with different but related topics and trying to solve the problem before being told the solution are proven strategies to aid retention. Make learning hard seems to be the dictum of cognitive scientists.”

There is no evidence either to suggest that stories about photographic memory hold any truth as after decades of scientific study, little proof has been found to support such statements. Aristotle once said, “Exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.” To get your memory working Brown says, “Giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know. Knowledge is transferred to the waiting brain when you test and quiz yourself repeatedly, and better still space our tests over days or weeks because memory strengthened when some forgetting had set in. The harder it is for your brain to recall something, the stronger the memory trace.”

Technology can now store and retrieve information faster than we can, so why should we bother ourselves with trying to remember? Memory champion, O’Brien describes memory as”a diamond mine of unexplored and untapped potential.” 

Being blessed with a good memory allows us to move quickly and without hesitation through life. Even if we have trained ourselves to use digital search techniques to the optimum to uncover what we are looking for, there is no better instrument available than our brain to propel us forward, dancing quickly from one topic to another. The information available in this story should encourage us to practice the techniques suggested, to utilise our brain which waits silently for us to switch it into action. It will not play games with us providing we tune our memory functions correctly. Then, we can expect and will get our reward. Clear and unambiguous information and a fast track to answer our questions and solve our problems.

Embrace the use of mnemonic techniques and practice them daily. Protect yourselves against the loss of information in doing so. Also believe training yourself in the pursuit of an excellent memory is not easy. It is hard. In fact the more difficult it is the better the outcomes will be. Those matters we hear or read and wish to memorise can be woven into a storyline, for example, the proven way to remember. In this article is has been suggested to us, our memory is “a diamond mine of unexplored and untapped potential.” Why not remind yourselves of this valuable statement every day? It will then be easy to deliver the workout your brain deserves. Remember it is, underutilised, bored and unspent.

Hayley James.



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